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The debate about Rupert Sheldrake's talk

Please use this space to comment on the debate around Rupert Sheldrake's TEDx talk, as described here:



Closing Statement from TED

Thanks to all who participated in this conversation on TED's decision to move Rupert Sheldrake's talk from YouTube to TED.com. It was scheduled as a 2-week conversation, and has now closed. But the archive will remain visible here.

We'd like to respond here to some of the questions raised in the course of the discussion.

Some asked whether this was "censorship." Now, it's pretty clear that it isn't censorship, since the talk itself is literally a click away on this very site, and easily findable on Google. But it raises an interesting question about curation. Should TED play *any* curatorial role in the content it allows its TEDx organizers to promote? We believe we should. And once you accept a role for curatorial limits, you have to accept there will be times when disputes arise.

A number of questions were raised about TED's science board: How it works and why the member list isn't public. Our science board has 5 members -- all working scientists or distinguished science journalists. When we encounter a scientific talk that raises questions, they advise us on their position. I and my team here at TED make the final decisions. We keep the names of the science board private. This is a common practice for science review boards in the academic world, which preserves the objectivity of the recommendations and also protects the participants from retribution or harassment.

Finally, let me say that TED is 100% committed to open enquiry, including challenges to orthodox thinking. But we're also firm believers in appropriate skepticism, or critical thinking. Those two instincts will sometimes conflict, as they did in this case. That's why we invited this debate. The process hasn't been perfect. But it has been undertaken in passionate pursuit of these core values.

The talk, and this conversation, will remain here, and all are invited to make their own reasoned judgement.

Thanks for listening.

Chris Anderson, TED Curator

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  • Mar 20 2013: I appreciate the fact that TED published my response to the accusations levelled against me by their Scientific Board, and also crossed out the Board’s statement on the “Open for discussion” blog. http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/14/open-for-discussion-graham-hancock-and-rupert-sheldrake/

    There are no longer any specific points to answer. I am all in favour of debate, but it is not possible to make much progress through short responses to nebulous questions like “Is this an idea worth spreading, or misinformation?”

    I would be happy to take part in a public debate with a scientist who disagrees with the issues I raise in my talk. This could take place online, or on Skype. My only condition is that it be conducted fairly, with equal time for both sides to present their arguments, and with an impartial moderator, agreed by both parties.

    Therefore I ask Chris Anderson to invite a scientist from TED’s Scientific Board or TED’s Brain Trust to have a real debate with me about my talk, or if none will agree to take part, to do so himself.
    • Mar 20 2013: This is a very, very good point. You're being put through a Kafkaesque Double Secret Probation here where you've been accused of a crime but you don't even know the charges.

      Perhaps TED would be so kind as to at least provide Mr. Sheldrake with the reasons for this tribunal, uh debate?
    • Mar 21 2013: It seems only fair that you be allowed to face at least one of your anonymous accusers face to face. I beg one of them to have the courage to step out of the shadows and face Mr. Sheldrake in a public debate. TED says you folks did your "due diligence" in coming to the conclusion he was nothing but a "pseudoscientist"- prove it. And if none of them are willing hopefully Chris Anderson will step up to the plate. Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing Sheldrake debate Jerry Coyne in a TED sponsored debate if none of his TED affiliated accusers are willing to stand behind their charges. Seeing as Coyne was publicly thanked by a TED employee and was instrumental in getting these vids removed he might make for a good alternate. No idea if Coyne is up for a debate with Sheldrake though- I kind of doubt it.
      • Mar 21 2013: I second the idea of a Sheldrake-Coyne debate, if it is possible. TED hosted a debate before (about nuclear energy).

        They are claiming that Sheldrake's talk was flagged because its content was basically wrongheaded. They made one attempt to demonstrate this - and fluffed it badly. They are haemorrhaging credibility, and need to either [A] withdraw the accusation or [B] justify it.

        As regards B, TED is a media outlet, and is hardly qualified to debate science, so why not bring in an outside academic to debate for them, while they provide the platform and benefit from the publicity? As I've said before, no one's reputation has been damaged in this kerfuffle except TED's, and they need to restore it with some sort of evenhanded treatment.

        Now who should debate Graham Hancock....?
      • Mar 21 2013: Forgive me for being skeptical, but is there really a science board? Is there any evidence, other than someone's testimony? This could be a problem, debating someone who doesn't exist.
    • Mar 21 2013: Hell, let one of the anonymous science board members speak from behind a screen, with his voice vocoded to retain anonymity. It would be hilarious.
    • Mar 21 2013: exactly what I was asking for! now where's my popcorn?! :)

      btw, is it just me or do PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne have been quiet lately? ;)

      please Mr. Anderson, make this debate happen.
      • Mar 21 2013: Jerry Coyne is too busy trying to find new controversial titles for his posts, so that he can get a few more hits for his blog. The nice thing about his audience is that they rarely read much more than the title of his post - which is just as well really because he likes his fluff in large doses.

        PZ Myers is all about drama and hand waving, but he will run a mile when asked to defend his position. He automatically deletes any comments on his blog that question his ideas. He tends to prefer drive by shootings because he would never cope with a real debate.
        • Mar 21 2013: Maybe we should give them a chance to respond before calling them cowards? I'm just saying it doesn't help our case for a debate if we're presupposed to hostility before it even starts.
        • Mar 21 2013: it's very telling that both PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne are awfully silent right now. this tells me that they are not interested in a public discussion. they are very good at making fun of ideas they don't agree with and calling people names (i.e. woo, woomeister, pseudoscience, etc.) if they really have scientific facts to back up their critiques of Sheldrake and Hancock, then by all means i expect them to have the decency to face the people they accuse in the arena of public debate. they pride themselves as scientists and rational people right? so they ought to behave like one. this is why i was so disappointed with TED's decision to pull out Sheldrake and Hancock's talks from the TEDx channel. to think that a couple of atheist/skeptic bloggers would have that influence on TED's content is very disheartening. i just hope that Myers and Coyne are *not* on the TED Science Board.
    • Mar 21 2013: This is an excellent idea. I can think of no better format to advance the stated goals of this debate. And, incidentally, no better way to repair TED's credibility and satisfy both camps in this debate.

      TED Staff - This is a prime opportunity to turn a PR nightmare in a big win for everyone.
    • Mar 21 2013: TED has initiated debate after debate so far, and as far as I can tell from that, TED and Chris Anderson will be delighted to get a debate going beyond this hidden corner of the site, out in the open on the main stage/page ! Go TED !
      • Mar 21 2013: I think you mean "Mr. Anderson," Agent Smith. ;)

      • Mar 21 2013: @Agent Smith,

        I think Chris is trying his best here. He's in a tough spot, at least from his perspective.

        Please, PLEASE, do the right thing here and accept Rupert Sheldrake's debate invitation. You guys put him on the defensive, and your science board did so with extreme (over?)confidence. There is clearly no fear on his end, and there should be none on yours. At the very least, it will be one heck of an entertaining, constructive, and informative debate.

        You know, in your heart of hearts, that an open debate is the most fair and graceful way to resolve this, while -- at least in my book -- completing repairing any damage to TED's credibility and turning a PR nightmare into a huge win for everyone.

        Edit: Today I learned that Chris Anderson of TED is not the same person as Chris Anderson of WIRED. Regardless, I think they'll both pretty chill guys. :-P
        • Mar 21 2013: I really appreciate your comment, that's why I just 'liked' it - but you're really making the same point as me...Anderson should take Sheldrake up on his offer, there's really no other way ! Now I never said he had it easy...of course he hasn't, having taken on the job he has. But the HONEST way out of UNeasy is not, if you want at the same time to be moral, to just avoid all that's coming your way, by avoiding a broader discussion, by avoiding the deeper issue at hand (materialism's value in modern science and society), and occasionally dropping in for snarky comments, while not doing what you ask everybody else to do - enable debate. And we're all adults - when TED calls for debate, we know it's gotta be more than some comment section on some soon forgotten blog post.
        • Mar 21 2013: Culture desperately NEEDS the conversation this debacle has highlighted to MOVE FORWARD. It is critical. This is a time for TED to now turn the whole thing around and play a truly historical role. Don't drop the ball. Don't run from this tremendous opportunity. Grab it and take us ALL forward!!
    • Mar 21 2013: It is incumbent upon TED, if it is not pretense but actually truly does stand for what it claims to stand for - to take Dr. Sheldrake up on this offer - to sponsor, organise and hold a proper debate/discussion between Dr. Sheldrake and his (anonymous) detractors. That would be the ultimate rectification of this debacle and the highest service to the movement of ideas in culture. Running from it would reveal TED to clearly be something entirely other than that which it claims to be. I am on the edge of my seat and keenly excited. Lets get on with it!
      • Mar 21 2013: Exactly. They should either come out definitely for or against the talk - or put all the energy into debating the contended topics, instead of paying lip service to debate by having it go on under blog posts which are only found by those aware of the debate, and will soon sink into the obscurity of this blog's timeline.
    • Mar 21 2013: I would love to view such a debate! Let scientists defend their views in the open and not by censoring views.
    • Mar 21 2013: Come on Mr Coyne, Science needs YOU !
      • Mar 21 2013: Between the anonymous Science Board, the "TED Brain Trust" (the names of which can be found here: http://www.ted.com/pages/41 ), Chris Anderson, PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne (the two bloggers who were instrumental in getting these talks removed and who were publicly thanked by TED), TED probably has around 50 bright people they can call on. Surely one of them will be brave enough to step forward and debate Dr. Sheldrake. Either take up Sheldrake on his challenge or issue a full public apology, say you were wrong, your charges were false, admit Sheldrake is a scientist and not a "pseudoscientist", and restore the videos to YouTube. Or you can just keep trying to make it all go away. Thing is, I suspect Sheldrake is not going to let it all go away until he gets satisfaction. And after the outrageous way you've treated him I can't say I blame him.
        • Mar 21 2013: Rupert could debate all 50 of them :) - admittedly being right helps...
    • Mar 21 2013: I fully support Rupert in his request for a debate.
    • Mar 21 2013: Can I point out how reasonable Rupert Sheldrake has been? He was criticised quite harshly yet responded in a very constructive and balanced way, and this is very much to his credit. I cannot imagine that there would be no scientist available to debate with him and so I very much hope that TED does the right thing in facilitating the discussion that we all want to hear, regardless of whether or not we agree with Sheldrake.

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